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Study US: Co-ops and internships
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December 18, 2008

In today's competitive job market, setting yourself apart from other candidates with a defining quality or experience can make all the difference in securing a job. Not only will this allow you to stand out amongst your peers, through initiatives such as co-operative programmes, in addition to real-life working exposure, it can also help you in terms of managing your finances better.

What are Co-ops and Internships?

A co-op programme allows students to combine academic study with work experience by spending one term on campus followed by another term working full-time in a position related to their field of study.

Work terms are usually four months long. Upon degree completion you will have the same number of academic terms as anyone else, and you will also have up to two years of valuable career-related work experience.

Whereas an internship is defined as a supervised practical training period for a student or recent graduate, the amount of time spent at an internship tends to vary, depending on the programme and the job.

Co-ops and internships provide you with some of the practical experience you will require when facing the job market after graduation.

Benefits to students and employers

Students who take advantage of co-ops and/or internships clarify their career goals and can determine their working-style preferences before they even get their first full-time career job. A strong benefit of these work terms, as you look beyond graduation and think of your future career, are the business networks that are created.

The contacts made during the work terms, both within the organisation and externally, can become a significant asset in a job search later on. This includes advice, references, job leads, and may even lead to a job offer if you manage to impress the employer.

Students also benefit from co-op and internships by:

How do Co-ops work?

There are a variety of ways that co-op and internship opportunities work. For specifics, inquire directly to the school to which you are applying. Some co-op and internship options are included in the choice of degree when you first apply, while others are an option to which you apply upon completion of your first year.

When there is a co-op or internship option within your degree, there are a variety of different schedules for the periods you are studying and working.

Depending on the school that you are attending, there may be a required introductory course that will explain your responsibilities on the job, the atmosphere to expect and the process of gaining employment. The process of gaining employment in a certain field of study depends on the institution and how they organise and attain the co-op opportunities.

At some institutions, co-ops and internships are offered only to certain programmes, so organisations are approached accordingly. When a school has a good reputation within the community because of its co-op and internship students, organisations might also approach the institution to sponsor a student.

What happens at the end of the work term?

If the work term counts towards your degree, there is often an evaluative component that will have to be completed by the end of each work term. This may be a written submission outlining what you have learned from the placement.

More recently, some schools have begun asking for a learning portfolio instead of a written submission. This tool allows students to document what they have learned from their work experience.

It provides a chance to see how far you have come, especially in instances when students have completed more than one work term.

What are the admission criteria?

Depending on the programme, some students will apply to a co-op programme straight out of high school. Once accepted, students generally start their first work term after their first year of studies. Each school is different, however, and specifics need to be found from the school itself.

Co-op and internship programmes are very competitive, so typically there is a minimum average students must maintain to stay in the programme. They must have strong communication and interpersonal skills to find success in their interviews and placements.

Will I get paid?

Whether or not you get paid depends on the programme you are enrolled in and the sponsoring organisation of your work term.

A lot of times students will get paid, making a co-op or internship option attractive for students who finance their own education.

In general, the salaries for a co-op or internship student range from $400 to $750 per week depending on the programme and placement.

To gain experience in an unusual field, some students take unpaid work terms. In other cases, instead of being paid regularly, a student may be given an honorarium at the end of the term.

Students should be aware that there are also fees associated with some co-op or internship programmes. These fees vary by institution, and go towards covering the operating costs that are associated with running a co-op education or internship programme.

What's next?

Follow up with universities you are considering to get more detailed information on available programmes, and talk to friends and family who have done a co-op or internship to hear about their experiences.

Post-secondary education prepares students with the necessary tools for the job market, and co-op and internship programmes are an excellent way for students to gain relevant experience and get a glimpse into the future towards a successful career.

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